The Smell Of Success

With tensions for auction supremacy building between the US and UK, the latest rounds showed the state of the bidding arms race. Diggory Hadoke unearthed more…

THE EARLY YEAR SHOWS IN THE USA SAW BRITISH AUCTIONEERS BACKING OFF in the face of import difficulties and strong competition from American auction houses. One of the major forces stateside is the James D. Julia operation, which held what it calls its ‘Extraordinary Firearms Auction’ on 21-23 March.

What was immediately apparent from the catalogue is the depth. This was an extravagant auction with everything from a saddle supposedly owned by John Wayne to a collection of six unused Holland & Holland ‘Royals’, stored since delivery. Trumpeted as ‘The Miracle Six’ with typical American hyperbole, they were certainly lovely and very much sought after. If there is one thing American collectors do like, it is ‘new in box’ condition. This very much stems from their attitude to American collectibles, which are mostly factory- made guns of questionable quality, once you look under the surface. They trade on rarity, provenance and originality.

Predictably, Julia’s catalogue was heavily laden with American firearms; lever-action Winchesters and Colt revolvers. Again, these are machine-made and crude by London sporting gun standards but can command huge prices. The collector market for this old Americana is in robust health. Of course, there are also items that in the UK we will never have the chance to collect. Historic machine guns and hand guns are big business over the pond. Perhaps more surprising is the amount of stock that we would consider collector-grade, best quality, rare, British sporting guns and rifles; even obsolete pistols. It appears that there are now more of these in the US than there is in their country of origin.

Certainly, it is a long time since I saw a London auction with this quantity of British guns of this quality and condition. In the UK we have a traditional view of the auction house as a clearing room for trade cast-offs, as well as a place where deceased estates liquidate collections and collectors trade out their unwanted kit. However, at Julia’s they seemed to have page after page of pristine, rare, beautiful firearms. To give an idea of the range, I can list some examples from the catalogue: A .577 Westley Richards double rifle, a pair of Alex Henry Howdah pistols, a Purdey two-groove express percussion rifle, a Holland & Holland double hammer rifle in .375 calibre, a pair of gold inlaid Purdey 12-bore SLEs and a mint pair of Charles Lancaster howdah rifles, which are the only ones I have ever seen. Immaculate products such as these certainly catch the eye. Regarding guns with provenance, they had a Marlin 1893 model lever action rifle presented to Annie Oakley and a repeating flintlock made by Hauschka for King Louis XV of France.

This sale was the last that Julia’s will hold in Maine, with all future sales moving to Denver PA, now that Julia’s has been taken over by Morphy Auctions. Wherever they trade from, Julia’s appear to have a really strong presence at the top end of the collectible market. Regarding quality and volume, the Americans certainly seem to have the upper hand at the moment; and the momentum. By comparison, the London auctions seem a little anaemic these days, the exception being Bonhams’ Antique Arms and Militaria sales, which still seem to attract good quantities of collector-grade percussion and earlier weapons. Outside London, there is expansion at one auction house that has been working hard to compete.

Southams’ in Bedford delivered their catalogue this month and their sale on 8 March was quite comprehensive. It took in a range of interesting items, from flintlock pistols, to WW1 officer’s boots, through air pistols, percussion sporting guns, modern breech-loaders, right up to continental over-and-under guns and bolt-action rifles. Southam’s appear to have also moved in on the traditional Scotarms territory of trade cast offs: boxes of assorted ammunition, brass cases, unloaded, primed cartridges by the tray full. Fishing tackle, optics and gun cases fill out the catalogue of 1180 lots. Newnham Street, Bedford is becoming a destination that is hard to ignore. Nigel Croskill has been working hard for several years now to achieve this success, with appearances at game fairs and trade shows. That work has paid off and it is good for the trade.

A serious player outside the capital is a healthy sign and a decent sized sale of this type appeals to the trade as well as the hobbyist or collector who finds the focus of the London auctions and the money needed to get involved at that level a little intimidating. The UK has always had a core of firearms enthusiasts who operate at a level some way below the international collector of best London guns. Auctions like Southam’s and Scotarms have been their natural habitat for years. You see people trawling through to a box full of what many would consider junk to uncover some piece of treasure that they can rescue, often for a few pounds.

Many are surprisingly knowledgeable and their enthusiasm for their hobby is equally intense as that of the wealthy collectors; often more so. Holt’s tapped into this market with their very successful Sealed Bids sales. They were a great idea and an overnight success. Once Holt’s had started to dominate the major London auction scene, Nick Holt wanted to expand and the area he identified was the lower end; Scotarms and Southams’ territory. The Sealed Bids sales have worked very well in filling this gap. However, the resilience of Southams’ shows that the London auctions can’t have it all their own way. Perhaps this not surprising, what is more surprising is that Southam’s are now attracting some of the better quality kit that one would have assumed would find its way to London instead of Bedford.

The movement is in the opposite direction to that which I would have expected. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues and Southam’s can maintain their rate of expansion. While Southam’s continue to hold court in Bedford, Holt’s started 2018 with the move to Blackheath for their 22 March sale. The bread and butter of a good auction is sound, classic English sidelock 12-bore ejectors but they are in short supply. If you want something with good barrels (meaning walls with a 24 thou’ minimum thickness and well in proof), a saleable barrel length of 28-30 inches and a good, undamaged, original stock of 141⁄2 inches of wood before you get to any pad or extension, expect to be sniffing around for a good long while.

As we have discussed in these pages before, the exodus of quality British shotguns to the USA in the 1980s and 1990s has left a hole in the stock available to auctioneers here today. Holt’s made use of a novel feature this time, which no doubt added interest to the visiting public. J-P Daeschler, the Kent- based gunmaker attended with his bench set-up to demonstrate some gun smithing skills and to talk to customers. In recent sales, Holt’s have aded a number of interesting side shows, like a Donald Dallas book- signing session and talks by soldiers and explorers. These are good additions to the guns on show but one cannot get away from the inescapable feeling that supplies of good guns are dwindling in the UK and without them, the London auctions could start to pick up a whiff of decay.

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